By Matt Waldman
Winston is an important prospect who requires coverage in a column like Futures. There are thoughts that I have about Winston's off-field issues, how college football enables bad behavior, and the thorny decisions that NFL personnel directors face with talented performers involved in allegations like Winston's. I won't address them here, but I will share them at my blog.
On the field, Winston is athletic, accurate, and poised. I'll share clips today that illustrate his feel for the position that sets him apart from many a college passer. There are subtleties to his game that are impressive building blocks for a good professional career.
Football and music have a lot of parallels, especially quarterbacking. The techniques and fundamentals of both disciplines are vital parts of a performer's development. However, they are just parts until they are integrated into the whole that we often describe as "feel," "stage presence," or "awareness."
An underlying theme with Winston's tape is his feel and presence from the pocket. Whether he's successful or makes a mistake, Winston's game is "yes" or "no." There is little hesitation, because he plays within the rhythm of the game, allows events to unfold, and he knows how to use his techniques and fundamentals to operate within the context of these events.
Here's a first-and-10 with 2:10 in the first quarter from a 2x2 receiver 10-personnel shotgun set with receivers tight to the formation. Notre Dame is in nickel with one safety deep and sending a four-man rush with the backfield covering the flats.
Note the rhythm and timing Winston from his initial drop, his look to the deep seam on his right, and ultimately his turn and checkdown to the right flat.
Winston delivers the ball quickly, hitting the receiver in stride over the inside shoulder for a 17-yard completion. The details are also on display: he turns his hips to drive through the release to generate the necessary velocity on the throw, the arm delivers the ball with a high release point, and the touch and placement of the pass over a defensive lineman and linebacker are perfect.
It was an easy rep, but it's worth viewing how Winston executes when the pocket is clean and the coverage provides openings. Late in the first quarter, Winston illustrates additional layers of quarterbacking fundamentals in a deceptively more complex scenario. The Seminoles' offense is once again operating from a 2x2 receiver 10-personnel set versus the Fighting Irish's nickel.
This time Notre Dame has four defensive backs across the back end of the formation at 7 or 8 yards of depth and a linebacker pressing the left edge of the line of scrimmage. Based on the timing of the play, the route depth, and the depth of penetration around the pocket from the defense, it appears Winston altered his drop and set up after his play fake.
I believe Winston was supposed to take a seven-step drop, but as he finishes the play fake, he notices the depth of the penetration off the right edge and doesn't want to drop into harm's way. Instead he cuts the drop to five steps, but that means he still has to wait on the downfield routes to break open, and he adjusts to the rhythm of the play by pattering his feet to wait on his teammate. If Winston had taken two hitch steps instead of pattering in place, which is what I believe was the original design of the drop, he would have hitched into interior pressure.
It's a smooth, improvised alteration to the play design based on the quarterback responding to the play unfolding and not some wooden execution by rote. One of Brandon Weeden's failures as a quarterback was his wooden performances when the "music" of the play didn't go as rehearsed. Weeden has good fundamental techniques as a thrower and he understands on paper where his receivers are, but when the play doesn't unfold he's still focused on the sheet music rather than what he's experiencing on stage.
[ad placeholder 3]
The best quarterback prospects are more like jazz musicians than classical musicians in this respect. They have all the fundamentals of an orchestral player, they can read music, and they understand theory, but they are trained to improvise and be in the moment in a way that's not as common for many classical musicians.
Quarterbacks like Weeden who fail to develop into consistent starters lack that extra awareness that Winston displays on this drop. The result is a 35-yard gain from a ball delivered in stride thanks to the economy of motion Winston displays with this adjustment to operate where the pocket gave him space. This is dancing to the music rather than dancing by numbers.
The last play was also a display of proactive behavior based on trusting what he sees and not blindly executing a play design. Leaders at this position must have vision and creativity or else they'll be task-oriented to a fault like Weeden.
Urgency is another expression of proactive behavior. This third-quarter play from shotgun versus Notre Dame's 3-3-5 look spotlights Winston's grasp of the situation and a smooth adjustment to a team that has been blitzing him all night. In this case, the defense plays two safeties deep, blitzes a linebacker over right guard, and drops the slot defender showing blitz off the right edge.
Winston takes the snap, spots the blitz, sets his feet, and drives the ball to the spot the linebacker vacates: the open area inside the right hash where his slot man breaks on a cross. Winston hits the receiver 12 yards downfield over the linebacker's blitz and between three zone defenders before interior pressure reaches him.
Some may nitpick Winston's delivery, pointing to the way he brings the ball a little farther from his back shoulder before executing his release, but the release and recognition of the defense is so quick, it's a non-issue. Like good musicians, every quarterback has some performance quirks that won't interfere with a strong performance.
Rhythm, anticipation, and placement are all some of Winston's best assets when he's on his game. The quarterback delivers this back-shoulder fade from the shotgun before the receiver begins his turn.
It's a good thing, too, because the receiver is turning into the defensive back to make this catch, so the ball better be there at the turn or else the defender will make a play while the receiver has to wait on the target. Winston displays good placement and timing against a zone defense in the third quarter off another three-step drop to fit the ball between four defenders.
The problematic spots for a quarterback in this situation are the drops of the linebacker in the middle of the field and the slot left defender underneath. Winston delivers the ball in rhythm and to the back shoulder of the crossing receiver. Winston thinks quickly enough to see how to protect his receiver from a big hit and executes to perfection. A quarterback-by-numbers type often puts his receiver into harm's way in the same scenario.
The next play reminds me of vintage Steve McNair at the height of his game as a pocket passer with poise, mobility, and accuracy on the move. Winston faces nine in the box with edge pressure reaching the pocket from both sides after the initial drop and look to the middle of a field, where five of those nine Notre Dame defenders dropped into coverage.
This play is a great example of what Steve Young learned from Bill Walsh: a quarterback should use his feet only after he has exhausted the play design. Exhausting the play design makes the quarterback more predictable to his teammates, which means they can continue to help him succeed. Winston exhibits this good behavior when he drops and looks to the middle of the field, looks to his right to the runner on the checkdown in the flat, and then makes the decision at the right time to create.
If Winston escapes the pocket earlier, he crowds the runner's space and the back may experience greater confusion about whether to work downfield as a receiver or stay at home to block. It would also encourage the defense to react with more time in advance, which decreases Winston's opportunity to catch them by surprise.
Instead, Winston climbs the pocket and slides to his right while looking downfield. The entire time, he maintains a stance with his shoulders, hips, and feet to deliver the ball. The throw up the right sideline is on the money, hitting Karlos Williams in stride and over his inside shoulder so the runner doesn't have to turn into the coverage to make the play. It's a 14-yard completion for a first down, and the placement affords Williams another 7 yards up the seam.
No pocket in this game is compressed enough to say with confidence that Winston can adjust to pressure with economy, but the adjustments with his drop on the crossing route in the first half and what he displays on this pass are good indications that he's poised under pressure. This tape does reveal that Winston is comfortable with some forms of interior pressure.
Winston looks right, plants, and delivers an accurate strike to his receiver in stride with the pressure of the linebacker in his face. The throw is made well before the receiver even begins his break. Winston does it again against interior pressure on third-and-3 with 10:12 left and down by three.
What's more impressive about hitting his receiver in stride up the left hash for a first down is the off-platform accuracy while delivering the ball off his back foot and fading away. Winston even has the presence of mind to turn his body so his throwing arm doesn't absorb a blow from the blitz.
I'm impressed with Winston the football player. Aside from some coverage-reading mistakes that are common with most NFL prospects, it's clear that he plays within his physical skills and he knows how to adjust the play design to the real-life context of the game. He doesn't play like he's solving a math problem.
If teams are satisfied with what they've learned about Winston's off-field behavior, then he has the goods to develop into a starting NFL quarterback. With enough continuity embedded into Winston's development, he could become the type of field general for whom the game is rarely too big.
[ad placeholder 4]
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.